Search Results for: The-New-Inquiry

Hidden Costs: When Prison Labor Gets Upsold as Artisanal Kitsch

Longreads Pick

An expose on the Maine Department of Correction Industries woodshop and other prison-based businesses like it, which frame their exploitive inmate manufacturing programs as rehabilitative when in reality they’re more like state-sanctioned slavery.

Source: The New Inquiry
Published: Aug 28, 2017
Length: 11 minutes (2,838 words)

A Lie of Creative Rehabilitation in ‘Vacationland’

At The New Inquiry, Chelsea Hogue has an expose on the Maine Department of Correction Industries (MDOC) woodshop and other prison-based businesses like it, which frame their exploitive inmate manufacturing programs as rehabilitative when in reality they’re more like state-sanctioned slavery — or, as Hogue puts it, “rebranding carceral slavery as ameliorative.”

MDOC profits from various wares made by inmates as part of their mandatory, low-wage labor, selling them at at The Maine State Prison Showroom, something of a feel-good souvenir shop.

Maine has sold its program to tourists as a form of arts-and-crafts nostalgia: Where cottage industries for handmade items have shrunk or evaporated, the story goes, these men work together to produce interesting objects. But the state’s labor program is no different from any other; its artisanal veneer may even make it more insidious. The majority of men are fulfilling monotonous duties. They aren’t learning marketable skills.

At the MDOC, the chosen method of rehabilitation is conveniently braided with punishment. Moreover, such punishment provides direct material benefit to the MDOC, those who are responsible for these men’s captivity in the first place. And yet we on the outside are told to think it is good to feel purpose—and that a task, however extractive, is one kind of purpose.

Read the story

This Week In Books: A ‘Melancholia’ or ‘Take Shelter’ Situation

Aaron Foster / Getty

Dear Reader,

A thing about me is that I’ve been depressed for awhile. Staying inside a lot. And now, Melancholia-like, real life has begun to mirror my mental state: my outer and inner worlds are on a collision course, and it’s not as clear as I’d like it to be which is drawing in the other.

Last week I told my boyfriend I sometimes have this vertiginous feeling that I caused the pandemic by becoming too socially isolated. I was joking, but not really joking. Yesterday when we were looking out the window at the absolutely nobody going by, I said, “What if we imagined this? What if there is no pandemic, and we’ve just convinced ourselves we have to stay inside?” He responded that he does sometimes worry that we are in a Take Shelter situation. That I, like Michael Shannon in the 2011 thriller directed by Jeff Nichols, convinced myself a storm was coming and prepped our shelter for no reason (I was worrying about corona weeks ahead of the curve), but because I turned out to be right (a total fluke), I will become power-mad and lock my boyfriend inside forever!

Honestly, reader, it’s not out of the question. I told him so, and he said that’s fair because it really does seem like a bad idea to go outside, like, ever again. I hear that brave people are out there doing things like gathering PPE donations for frontline healthcare workers or taking groceries to the isolated elderly or just working their regular jobs at the grocery store, which it turns out are wildly dangerous. I keep trying to psych myself up to do something useful like that, but then another formless day peels off its skin, and I find I have achieved nothing. The best I can say for myself is that I am not one of those people at the park making things worse.

Most of this week’s book roundup is about the virus. The whole world is about the virus. I am so sorry.

1. “America Infected: The Social (Distance) Catastrophe” by J. Hoberman, The Paris Review

Film critic J. Hoberman points to political differences between Camus’ The Plague and Elia Kazan’s unacknowledged film adaptation Panic in the Streets as a demonstration of how pandemic response can inspire solidarity or descend into authoritarianism.

2. “‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’: A Story of the 1918 Flu Pandemic” by Katherine Anne Porter, The New York Review of Books

NYRB has printed an excerpt from Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel (originally published in 1939) set during the influenza pandemic of 1918 and based on Porter’s own experience with the disease. It is an unsettling read for anyone contemplating dying in the Javits Center next month.

3. “The Anger of the Sick” by Davey Davis, The New Inquiry

Davey Davis reviews Blackfishing the IUD, a weaponized memoir which its author Caren Beilin hopes will destroy the IUD the way the documentary Blackfish destroyed Sea World; Beilin seeks vengeance against the IUD because her use of the device left her with an autoimmune disorder. Davis writes that what separates Beilin’s memoir from others in the ‘sick woman’ genre is her explicit call to action; to defeat the IUD, we must first overturn a medical system that doubts women’s pain. This review was published last month, but it seems prescient now, written at the cusp of the moment before the political anger of the unwell becomes everyone’s anger.

4. “What China’s Literary Community is Reading During the Coronavirus Pandemic” by Na Zhong, Lit Hub

One of the strangest consequences of the pandemic is that at any given time, you can have the uncanny realization that you know exactly what most of the people you know (and billions of others you don’t) are doing right now: sitting around at home, trying to figure out how to think about (or not think about) the coronavirus. Na Zhong has put together a list of books that a few members of China’s literary community are anxiety-reading right now. It’s weird to think that their motivations to anxiety-read about a) other plagues or b) World War II dovetail so perfectly with my household’s anxiety-reading compulsions this past week; I’ve been covering the plague angle while my boyfriend has World War II cornered for now.


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5. “The Dystopian Novel for the Social Distancing Era” by Joshua Keating, Slate

Joshua Keating writes that Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is the book that’s been on his mind these days, because so far his experience of the pandemic has not been sickness but rather (reminiscent of Ogawa’s surreal novel) the erasure of items from everyday life. “The losses start small and insignificant. At the local coffee shop, the first thing that disappeared was the table holding the lids and the self-serve milk. Then half the tables vanished. Then all the tables. Then the whole shop closed. Then you hear that the employees were laid off … Perhaps you, like me, thought last Saturday that it would be OK to have a couple of friends over to the house as long as you were reasonably cautious … By Sunday, that was off limits. Today, the idea is unthinkable.”

6. “An Attentive Memoir of Life in Parma” by Patricia Hampl, The Paris Review

Patricia Hampl writes that a book she loved 25 years ago, Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s memoir Mother Tongue about expatriate life in Italy, has taken on new meaning during the pandemic. “I’ve been in conversation with this book for many years. And now, yet again, with the undertow of the pandemic clutching Italy in its fierce grip, the book speaks.”

7. “Gimme Shelter” by Helena de Bres, The Point

Helena de Bres writes about the books that she turned to for comfort during a period of personal isolation she faced as a child, and how books (generally pessimistic, sad) aren’t really comforting her at all during this period of universal isolation. Instead it’s the unbridled optimism of those crazy people who keep going outside that she’s been motivated by, because she realizes how precious those ridiculous optimists are. We must preserve them.

8. “English PEN Calls for Release of Ahdaf Soueif After Coronavirus Protest Arrest” by Mark Chandler, The Bookseller

A brief note and harbinger: “English PEN has called for the release of Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, who was arrested during a protest about the treatment of prisoners during the coronavirus outbreak.”

9. “Capitalism’s Favorite Drug” by Michael Pollan, The Atlantic

This one is about coffee — the illustrious Michael Pollan reviewing Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland — and honestly it isn’t supposed to be about coronavirus at all, but I read this line and I can’t stop thinking about the rich people who would rather send us back out to die than pay our bills for a little while: “The essential question facing any would-be capitalist, as Sedgewick reminds us, has always and ever been ‘What makes people work?’” On Salvadoran coffee plantations, the answer to that question was: a hunger crisis engineered by the upper class.

10. “Anna Kavan and the Rise of Autospec” by Gregory Ariail, The Los Angeles Review of Books

This one isn’t about corona either. It’s Gregory Ariail’s review of the Anna Kavan short story collection published by NYRB this month, and how Kavan’s style (she lived in the first half of the twentieth century) defined a genre Ariail calls “auto speculative fiction” (as opposed to “autofiction”), which he describes as “a truly combustive marriage of opposites: the searing confessions of the inner life on the one hand, and speculative narratives that systematically violate natural laws and reject normative discourses on the other.” I won’t tell you which lines of this review remind me of corona; you can pick those out for yourself.

Take care of yourself,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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This Week in Books: Several Nihilistic Frenchmen

Portrait of the French writer Joris Karl Huysmans (1848-1907). (Photo by Leemage / Corbis via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

I feel like most of my reading this past week was preoccupied by power: who has it, who can get it, and what it looks like. The overall arc of the revelation seems to be that no matter how acutely we are aware of the answers to the first and second questions (1. the rich; 2. the rich), the answer to the third can still feel surprising: what power looks like, in the end, is nothing more or less than the ability to keep buying food at jacked up prices during a food shortage. “Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops,” writes Camus in The Plague. “The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing.” “We’re all in this together” becomes a pipe dream for Camus in The Plague almost as quickly as it did for us in 2020; it turns out maintaining normalcy during a crisis is the ultimate show of elite strength — even, or especially, at the expense of the rest of us. In that vein, I found Samuel Rutter’s manual for living a 19th-century decadent lifestyle, as described in the writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans, to be particularly bonkers and provoking; a perfect covid read. After all, a morose eccentric living alone in the countryside and indulging in simple pleasures may feel relatably disheveled and melancholy during quarantine, but of course by the very fact that he can afford not to work, we know he must be quite rich. Only the rich get to drop out of society with everyman style. Sooner or later, for most of us, the other shoe will drop.

Power didn’t only come up this week in reviews of books by dour Frenchmen, either! It’s there in Maisy Card’s description of the way she felt, while conducting archival research for her debut novel, when she read accounts of enslaved women and girls who found ways to rebel against servitude and sexual violence (“They were victims of course, but it was also comforting to know that, as brutalized as they were, many of them still found the strength to disobey”); it’s there in Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, which explores the twisting violence enacted by “federal language” against Native people during the Termination era, a time when the government tried to eliminate tribal existence through bureaucracy and mandates; and of course it’s the constant thread woven through a New Yorker review of the latest book by Mike Davis, whose City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear seemed to presage the Rodney King Riots and the Woolsey Fire respectively, and whose The Monster at Our Door, about the potential for an avian flu pandemic, apparently scared him so badly that he couldn’t keep a copy in his house. Davis’ latest, the memoir-ish Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, is intended as a guide for young radicals, although its lessons are somewhat crushingly framed as a tutorial on failure: “I realized eight years ago… that the experience of that generation had to be recovered, and recovered in a way that would provide lessons and balance sheets to the current generation of activists… To understand what people fought for and what strategies they used and why, at the end of the day, we were defeated in every important sense.”

The fact that nearly every article in the newsletter this week seems to be about power could of course just be my own preoccupations at work, but I also can’t shake this feeling that a leaf has been turned, and we are on a crash course with something brand new — or perhaps very, very old. So much of what has happened lately has been completely unfathomable (even at the same time that it was totally predictable, if that makes any sense at all) but I simply can’t wrap my head around this thing where people are forced to go back to work when the virus is still widely circulating and untraced. This seems untenable? I know Americans are a surprisingly meek people when it comes to doing the bidding of our bosses, but it seems like a bridge too far, even for us.

I think something’s going to happen to stop it. Or maybe I just hope it does.

1. “A Dandy’s Guide to Decadent Self-Isolation” by Samuel Rutter, The Paris Review

Samuel Rutter scours Joris-Karl Huysmans’ classic of French decadent literature Against Nature for advice on how to live the way we must now — that is, like we are eccentric recluses “[taking] pleasure in a life of studious decrepitude.”

2. “Pointing the Finger” by Jacqueline Rose, The London Review of Books

Jacqueline Rose revisits Camus’ The Plague and re-examines old arguments about whether it is lax in assigning blame. “Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know too that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.”

3. “Artforum” by César Aira, Lit Hub

An excerpt from César Aira’s Artforum. And yes, the entire excerpt is about how one man’s copy of Artforum magazine has gotten very, very wet.

4. “Holy Simplicity: On Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Night Watchman’” by Thomas J. Millay, The Los Angeles Review of Books

This review of Louise Erdrich’s latest novel The Night Watchman situates the book in its historical context of the Termination era, when the federal government attempted to erase Native identity and nationhood by “giving” Native Americans citizenship. Reviewer Thomas J. Millay writes that the novel draws a purposeful contrast between the plainspoken language of the story’s protagonists — members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa or Ojibwe Indians — and the deceitful speech of the federal government. “Federal language twists and turns, appearing good on its surface but in fact initiating great evil.”


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5. “Maisy Card: ‘There is this hazy quality to my family history that no amount of research can clarify.’” by Mickie Meinhardt, Guernica

Mickie Meinhardt interviews Maisy Card about her novel These Ghost Are Family, which is based on 12 years of archival research about her family’s history in Jamaica and the legacy of slavery. “I can easily make a character’s anger my own, and I’ll find myself walking around with those feelings after working on the book, as if I forgot that I was writing about fictional people.”

6. “We’re All Living in the Bathroom Now” by Annabel Paulsen, Electric Literature

This reflection on what Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom (an incredible novella about a man who lives in his bathroom and refuses to ever leave it) can teach us about quarantine is, you may have noticed, the THIRD time a sort of nihilistic Frenchman has appeared in the reading list this week. Which is pretty remarkable considering I haven’t even mentioned the Houellebecq thing.

7. “Mike Davis in the Age of Catastrophe” by Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker

Dana Goodyear reviews Mike Davis’ movement history Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties and asks him, the oracle of L.A. apocalypse, what to worry about next. The answer is less than reassuring for Angelenos, I assume: “Davis kept worrying it over, the alternative ending that might reorder everything again. ‘What if the big one happened now?’ he said. I’ve already plundered my earthquake kits for face masks and hand sanitizer. And now Davis has said my midnight fear out loud.”

8. “The Stages of Not Going on T” by Danny M. Lavery, The New Inquiry

A gorgeous piece of writing excerpted from Danny M. Lavery’s Something That May Shock And Discredit You. “Oh, I don’t want to go on T. That’s not what this is. I can see where you got the idea, I suppose, but I’m afraid hormones simply aren’t for me. I don’t even want the ones I have! I’ll never go on testosterone, but it’s simply wonderful for you. You look great. Better than ever, honestly. If I were stuck in a room for the rest of my life and could only look at one thing for some reason, it would be you (I hope that’s not weird to say), but that’s really not the same thing. I just want you to go on hormones and for me to be able to watch you do it.”

9. “Making My Moan” by Irina Dumitrescu, The London Review of Books

Irina Dumitrescu reviews a very scholarly sounding book of absolutely incredible medieval smut, Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain. “Gloriously, the poem ‘I pray yow maydens every chone’ features a merchant offering his podynges (‘sausages’) to a group of young women. ‘Will ye have of the puddings come out of the pan?’ he asks, and they reply firmly: ‘No, I will have a pudding that grows out of a man.’”

10. “Are We Seeing a New Movement to Organize Publishing?” by Corinne Segal, Lit Hub

An interview with Amy Wilson, who runs the Twitter account Book Worker Power, which she made as a more direct-action oriented response to the emergence of the popular satirical Publishers Weakly account. (You can read an interview with the anonymous people who run that account on Electric Literature. I believe they gave this interview just before their first two cancelings, which came in kind of admirably quick succession.)

Stay well,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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This Week In Books: The New Lord and Lady of the Apartment

Me, doing the laundry. (OMIURI SHIMBUN/AFP via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

This week I figured out that the best way to hang-dry our sheets is over the closet doors. From across the room they look like a pair of dangerously large jellyfish landing on a dead coral reef.

Is that a weird thing to think? Well, it gets worse. Because as I foisted those sheets unto their bleached white thrones, and regarded them as the new reigning lord and lady of our apartment, I felt a sudden terror not for myself (because I’m losing it) but the guys who work at the laundromat.

You see, I’ve been trying to think of everyone; to contact trace, as it were, the Danavirus, and catalog everywhere I habitually spread my (ew, this metaphor, what the hell) droplet$. And the laundromat, oh god, oh gods, oh gelatinous lords of the reef — I hadn’t thought of them yet! I’d been so fixated on developing a process for handwashing all our stuff in my kitchen sink that I had forgotten the dire economic impact that this, too, has wrought. The laundromat guys must be so worried right now! How can they possibly be making any money?? So, I worried a bit for them. I’m trying to figure out if they have a gofundme but I can’t find it. God, everything sucks.

I shudder to think of how much handwashing is happening in America right now. It’s not good. I am not good at it. Everything is stiff. It turns out washing machines have water filters in them, who knew! So now everything I own is hardened by the invisible minerals in the tap water (“We are learning much about the Invisible Enemy,” the soft, slug-like President of America whispers to me silkily from his hidey-hole in the crisped white reef), invisible minerals which I’m questioning whether I really should have been drinking straight from the tap for…. my entire…. life….

I know I sound like I’m spiraling, which is why I’ve decided this week to read A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman’s classic work of narrative nonfiction about the Black Death. So far the book has taught me that everything is going to be fine!

Haha, sike, no it’s not. You know, at the time, they didn’t call it the Black Death. They called it the Great Mortality. I’ve been wondering what this whole corona thing is going to be called one day — or even what it’s going to be called next month. In my roundup below, one of the articles, featured on Lit Hub, is called “How Did Writers Survive the First Great Depression?” which caught me off guard when I read it. I thought to myself, with a noticeable chill down my spine, “Oh, are we already calling this the Second Great Depression?” Then I belatedly realized the article is an excerpt from a book about the Great Recession — making it unclear whether the “second” Great Depression presumed by the article’s title is a Lit Hub editor’s gesture toward the current corona crisis or the book itself making a statement about the severity of the Recession. It was jarring, this realization that I personally do not have enough data to say for sure, off the top of my head, whether the second Great Depression has already happened or not; that historical time has become so warped in our supposedly post-everything future that the scale and scope of things is somewhat beyond me. It was like looking into a mirror that’s facing another mirror and seeing my foremost reflection first, a half-second before I notice there are a dozen more just like it, going all the way back.

1. “From Now On, I Vow Only to Read Fiction” by Nausicaa Renner, N+1

“I admire those who are stable enough to keep reading essays,” Nausicaa Renner writes in this very good essay. “From now on, I vow only to read fiction.”

2. “Trout Fishing in America” by Greil Marcus, Bookforum

The great Greil Marcus interviews the great Percival Everett; it’s an unbeatable interview combo, beyond reproach. “I can’t look directly at a beautiful river—I find that I have to turn away and steal glimpses of it, because it’s too much for me.”

3. “I Love Paulette Jiles’s Novels. So Why Won’t She Talk to Me?” by Emily McCullar, Texas Monthly

I think at one point I was the kind of person who would have had some reservations about this kind of thing. I would have thought, maybe, that no matter how cranky and conservative and capricious Paulette Jiles is, it’s still sort of awkward to finish your profile of her once she’s cut off communication with you and insulted you on her blog. But now, in the Age of the Virus, I have shed many feelings and beliefs. My heart has been hardened (“by the minerals in the water,” the pale white President in the Reef whispers raspily to me while Lorrie Moore is soothed by the sound of it), and now, to me, it is noble and just to publish the profile of someone who has insulted you on her blog. News of the world, indeed.

4. “The Provincial Reader” by Sumana Roy, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Sumana Roy remembers growing up as a provincial reader in rural West Bengal, which reminded me a little of growing up in Ohio, back when most of my favorite books were garage sale paperbacks with the covers mysteriously ripped off. “In pre-liberalization India, everything arrived late: not just material things but also ideas … This temporal gap turned journalism into literature, news into legend, and historical events into something akin to plotless stories. But like those who knew no other life, we accepted this as the norm.”


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5. “How Did Writers Survive the First Great Depression?” by Jason Boog, Lit Hub

In an excerpt from the The Deep End: The Literary Scene in the Great Depression and Today, Jason Boog writes about becoming obsessed with authors who struggled to survive the Great Depression while he himself struggled through the Great Recession. “I paid 50 dollars to get a copy of Newhouse’s out-of-print novel so I could show it to everybody I knew. Like some misguided missionary, I’d show it to people and say, ‘See? See? He’s talking about us!’ His book felt like a bomb with a busted timer that had stalled back in the 1930s and had been stuck on a dusty shelf for 80 years, losing none of its dangerous potency. I wanted to fix the timer and blow something up all over again.”

6. “Lunar Phase” by Kamran Javadizadeh, The Point

Kamran Javadizadeh ruminates about what kind of book he would ideally like to be reading right now, and lands on the moon. “I find now that what I want out of reading is both contact and distance … I want something that makes me feel like I do when I listen to those lunar audio loops. Which is to say, both close to a voice and far from its source; securely connected, as though by an invisible cable, to a distant but steady point in space.” He writes that the only thing really doing the trick is James Schuyler’s 1974 poetry collection Hymn To Life. In an address to an inaccessible and distant beloved, one poem reads: “In / moon terms, you’re / not so far away.”

7. “‘Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited’ and the Inner Life of Catastrophe” by Garth Greenwell, The New Yorker

In light of the recent tendency to compare the coronavirus pandemic to the HIV pandemic, Garth Greenwell revisits Andrew Holleran’s 1988 Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited (originally published under the title Ground Zero). “[Henry] James, Holleran writes, ‘claimed the raising of a woman’s eyebrow across the dinner table was more dramatic to him than the fall of Rome.’ The question of many of Holleran’s columns in the eighties was what such a writer can do when Rome actually falls.”

8. “Complex Messiah” by Ratik Asokan, Bookforum

An invigorating read about Heinrich von Kleist, a sort of batty early 19th century Prussian romanticist whose novella The Duel is lowkey one of my favorite books. I’ve always wanted to read his best known work, Michael Kohlhaas, and in this review Ratik Asokan writes that New Directions has just given us a robust new translation. “…The tales unfold with a wild, almost savage intensity, which contemporary readers found disturbing; infamously, Kleist’s hero Goethe dismissed the younger writer as diseased.”

9. “A Detrimental Education” by Zaina Alsous, The New Inquiry

Zaina Alsous interviews Eli Meyerhoff about his book Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World, an examination of how the older concept of “study” has been superseded by the more recent, capitalism- and colonialism-inflected idea of “education.” “With the formal end of slavery, racial capitalism shifted to wage labor contracts … So, in order to enable arbitrage of humans as capital, capitalists needed to create distinctions in the category of ‘the human.’ Stratified and hierarchical education produces differences among humans that, in turn, create arbitrage opportunities in fractured labor markets.”

10. “The Phony Warrior” by Yoshiharu Tsuge, The Paris Review

In an excerpt from The Swamp, a new collection from Drawn & Quarterly of work by the 20th-century comics artist Yoshiharu Tsuge, a samurai is disappointed to learn that a traveling ronin he meets on the road is both more and less great than rumor has it.

Stay well,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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A Reading List Inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins

Photo: Chris

I used the seven deadly sins–lust, gluttony, envy, greed, sloth, pride, and anger — as the springboard for choosing these stories.

1. LUST: “Eileen Myles on the Excruciating Pain of Waiting for Love.” (Eileen Myles, The Cut, February 2016)

Poet and novelist Eileen Myles muses on a summer fling that should’ve lasted forever.

2. GLUTTONY: “Hunger Makes Me.” (Jess Zimmerman, Hazlitt, July 2016)

Jess Zimmerman writes eloquently on the subject of emotional labor, and “Hunger Makes Me” connects the twin suppressions of women’s physical and emotional appetites.

3. ENVY: “Tan Lines.” (Durga Chew-Bose, Matter, August 2015)

Lucky for us, Durga Chew-Bose’s essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood (not “not IN the mood,” as many 2017 book previews have miswritten), debuts in April. Here, Chew-Bose meditates on her heritage and the double standard of the white obsession with tanning.

4. PRIDE: “Southern Fried Pride: What Hattiesburg’s First Pride Means in the Deep South.” (Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Medium, August 2016)

In the parlance of sinning, pride is associated with selfishness, narcissism, and vanity (i.e., our current presidential administration). Instead, I wanted to feature self-love and self-confidence, a kind of pride that isn’t evil in the slightest, as well as a reminder that it’s 2017 and bigots still protest against LGBTQ people (and not just in the American South).

5. GREED: “A Tyrannosaur of One’s Own.” (Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Aeon, January 2016)

Are private fossil collections a disservice to the scientific community?

6. ANGER: “She Mad and She Magic.” (Muna Mire, The New Inquiry, August 2015)

An insightful review of Michele Wallace’s groundbreaking text, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwomanrecently reissued by Verso Books. Muna Mire examines the book’s controversial reception in 1979 and its contemporary resonance, concluding, “Black Macho may have been inconvenient; it may not have been careful. But it was a necessary push forward. Getting angry works for Black women — it gets results and keeps us alive.”

7. SLOTH: “Fuck Work.” (James Livingston, Aeon, November 2016)

“Fuck Work” sounds blunt, until you learn James Livingston is the author of a book called No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea. Livingston critiques our capitalist obsession with productivity and defining our self-worth via our work ethic, because full employment doesn’t insure quality of life. He asks,

“How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?”

Checking in on the Masculinity Crisis

Richard T Nowitz / Getty

Kelli María Korducki | Longreads | December 2019 | 14 minutes (3,786 words)

 

Not long ago, I noticed a woman reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life at my Manhattan yoga studio as we both waited for our Ashtanga class to begin. The sight took me aback. Despite the 2018 book’s many weeks as a nonfiction bestseller, I’d somehow never considered that the scope of Peterson’s audience might extend beyond sulky white men who like to outsource their thinking. That it might include women with the disposable income and leisure time to spend their Saturday afternoons doing sun salutations, whose lives probably look a lot like mine.

Peterson, a once-unassuming psychology professor at my Canadian alma mater (I’d never heard of him during the years we were both there), has emerged in the last few years as a puzzling figurehead among men’s rights aficionados and self-help enthusiasts alike. Wielding a trademark pastiche of literary references and cherry-picked sociological data points, his writing and, to a greater extent, public lectures broadcast via YouTube deliver what is, for many in this age of ‘toxic masculinity’ and #MeToo, a reassuring story: that men are natural rulers, white privilege is a farce, and if millennial men would just make their beds and assume their kingdoms, we’d all be better off.

Peterson speaks to a constellation of loosely connected concerns that have, in the last several years, dominated popular discourse on where boys and men fit into a society in which gender norms play less and less of a role in determining how people fit together. Conversations about rape culture and damaging gender constructs take place alongside global reports of female students outperforming their male classmates. We hear of a workforce that, at least in theory, rewards the “soft skills” women are purportedly socialized to possess. Meanwhile names like “Dylann Roof” and “Elliot Rodger” have become shorthand for an epidemic of male isolation and rage. A New York Times story that followed shortly after the deadly February 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, included the observation that “about the only thing” nearly all U.S. mass shooters have in common “is that they are men.” Read more…

On Beauty: A Reading List About Makeup

My makeup routine is nonexistent. I wore mascara to a presentation on my birthday last week, and before that, I had my friend apply my red lipstick in an Au Bon Pain in New York City. I’m uncoordinated, anxious and fidgety—my idea of hell is eyeliner application. But I appreciate the artistry that goes into the creation and execution of gorgeous makeup. I’ve watched tutorials, and I’ve watched my friends draw wings on their faces. They enjoy it, and I am glad for them. Beauty criticism analyzes the ways we can subvert a society that would have us subsumed by self-loathing. We use the tools we’ve been given. Makeup, then, can be a weapon. And it can be damn fun. Read more…

The Cabin on the Mountain

A small cabin shrouded by fog, amid snow, on a mountain
Photo by Wave Faber (Getty Images)

Colin Dickey | Longreads | March 2022 | 24 minutes (4,226 words)

 

Two men are dead in a cabin on the side of a mountain — how did they die?

There is a whole host of questions like this — riddles that get grouped under the category of “lateral thinking puzzles.” Another: A man walks into a restaurant and orders the albatross soup. After finishing the soup, he leaves and commits suicide. Why? Or: There is a dead man, naked in the desert, holding a straw. How did he die? You can only ask yes-or-no questions, and the goal is to figure out the precise story. Many of these involve a dead man in one form or another. There is a dead man with a hole in his suit — how did he die?

Sometimes, the mechanism of the answer is something ludicrously complex, a thing that must be pieced out bit by bit. Several people were in a hot air balloon that drifted into the desert and started to lose altitude because of the heat and air pressure. They threw everything they could overboard, including their clothes, but when that wasn’t enough they drew straws to see who would jump overboard to save the others. Other times, though, the solution is simpler, but requires retooling your perspective. You hear “hole in his suit” and you think of a three-piece suit and your mind goes to a bullet wound. Once that image is set in your mind, it can take some work to dislodge it. You don’t necessarily think: “space suit.”

Once that image is set in your mind, it can take some work to dislodge it.

You hear “cabin on the side of a mountain” and you think of a small building built of wood and brick. Smoke out of the chimney from a pleasant fire. You don’t necessarily think: “airplane.”

***

Cabin is one of those words that seemed unremarkable to me until I spent some time thinking about it. It is a small room, a compartment, but beyond that it splinters in different directions. A cabin is a thing in the woods, remote, isolated — a place to escape to or where one goes to live simply. It is also a compartment on a ship, a private room in a large, more complex vessel. Or it is the main body of an airplane, where all the passengers (as well as the crew, if it’s a small aircraft) sit together. The kind of thing that you might find strewn on the side of a mountain.

Knowing the reason those two dead men are in that cabin on the side of the mountain answers some questions but not all. It doesn’t tell us why the crash happened, who was responsible, or anything about the lives of these two dead men. The lateral thinking puzzle is not truly interested in these questions.

***

I separated from my wife of 20 years at the end of 2019. We had previously lived in Brooklyn but had moved upstate to Dutchess County, New York, for several years — when people asked me why we moved, I often replied that it was the result of “a series of irrevocable decisions.” There, everything had fallen apart, and at the beginning of 2020 I moved back to Brooklyn, to an apartment a few blocks from where we’d lived together before. Upstate, we’d had a large house and plenty of room; now I was on the fifth floor of an apartment building, once again sharing walls.

I wanted very much to focus on myself. Now that I was, for the first time in decades, not bound by another person’s decisions and wants and happiness alongside my own, I could look inward and try to understand what I needed and what I wanted. The old me had died, I told myself. I could now be whomever I wanted. I made a decision to live more deliberately, to take some control over my life that I felt had been lacking. I was going to spend some time and really focus on figuring out exactly what had gone so wrong, how things had turned out so poorly. But I also decided to be more open to experience, to consider possibilities, to let myself be carried along by the moment if it meant new chances, new ways of being.

I only had about a month of this before the world came crashing to a halt and I found myself largely trapped inside for the next few months. Trying to merely stay alive, I made decisions that would have lasting impacts out of sheer reaction. I saw my day-to-day life as from a distance, a sort of eerie remove, as though it was happening to someone else. I established new patterns as a way of asserting some kind of order on the chaos and anxiety I felt, then watched myself as though someone else was going through those motions.

To be in a cabin on a plane, together with your fellow passengers, or to be in a cabin on a ship, alone by yourself, is to be a passenger of some kind. To be in a cabin in the woods is to be going nowhere at all — though, at least since Thoreau, to be in such a cabin is to be, on some level, on some kind of introspective journey, learning about yourself and how to live. I see now that at some point in those early months I began moving along three separate timelines. I was a hermit, ensconced in a cabin, trying to find myself; I was a passenger, moving along into the future without agency; and I was alive amidst a wreck — everything around me crashed, everything broken.

In those early months of the pandemic one of the few things I learned was how a single life can split into a series of paths simultaneously.

***

There is a specific cabin on the side of a specific mountain that I think about often. It is the cabin of a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30, Air New Zealand Flight 901, which sits on the side of Mount Erebus, as it has for over 40 years. In 1977 Air New Zealand began operating sightseeing tours over Antarctica: The flight would leave Auckland at 8:00 a.m., fly a loop over the continent and return to Christchurch at 7:00 p.m., refuel, and return to Auckland. An experienced Arctic explorer on board would act as a guide during the trip, pointing out landmarks and features of the continent.

The approved flight plan involved flying directly over the 12,448-foot Mount Erebus on Ross Island, the second-highest peak in Antarctica, but due to a transcription error, the actual flight path used by most of the sightseeing flights involved flying down the length of McMurdo Sound, some 27 miles west of the mountain. A few days before the accident, another pilot noted this discrepancy, leading Air New Zealand to update the flight plan, albeit incorrectly.

On November 28, 1979, Flight 901 proceeded along a route that the pilot and copilot believed to be along McMurdo Sound, descending to 1,500 feet. Despite the crew being aware of visual landmarks all around them, they did not realize that their new path put them on a course to Mount Erebus and they did not see the mountain directly in front of them. A condition known as “flat light” or “sector whiteout” had occurred, where the mixture of snow on the ground, clouds, and light conditions caused the pilots to lose depth of field; they were unable to distinguish the mountain from the horizon all around them.


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At some point, in those final moments, that horrifying trick of perspective revealed itself: The empty white horizon was in fact, a mountain. It was too late to pull up. At 12:49 p.m. the plane crashed into the side of Mount Erebus. All 257 people on board were killed.

Because of the expense and feasibility of a large-scale salvage operation, most of the wreckage is still on Mount Erebus. The bodies have been removed, but the cabin remains on the mountain.

***

Mount Erebus is an active volcano, and one of the more geologically important sites on the planet. It was named by Sir James Clark Ross, who named it after his ship, the HMS Erebus. Built in 1826, the Erebus had begun its service as a warship, but after two years it was refitted for Arctic exploration, alongside the HMS Terror, which had shelled Baltimore during the War of 1812. The two ships left Tasmania in November of 1840 and spent the winter exploring the island that would later be named for Ross; the two ships would make several subsequent expeditions back to Antarctica in the ensuing years. Then in 1845, both ships were outfitted with steam engines and used by Sir John Franklin in his doomed expedition in search of a Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Franklin sailed in the Erebus, in command of the entire expedition, while Francis Crozier captained the Terror. The two ships were last seen by Europeans entering Baffin Bay in August of 1845 by whalers, wherein they disappeared into the Canadian Arctic. The mystery captivated the British public, and multiple expeditions were launched in search of the Franklin Expedition. Eventually it became clear that all 129 men on board had been lost.

Those men died beholden to a fantasy of British imperialism, sleepers all sharing the same dream. But as the reality that no one had survived the Franklin Expedition sank in among the British populace, it became increasingly important to understand how they died. Local Inuits who had witnessed the Franklin Expedition reported that they had descended into cannibalism near the end, an accusation met with widespread condemnation tinged with racist vitriol. Charles Dickens accused the Inuits of having murdered the sailors themselves; “We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel,” he wrote. Britons refused to believe that these men, bereft, starving, lost, and hopeless, could behave as anything but stalwart embodiments of British ideals. It was important that the people of England be able to tell themselves that these men had died well. To believe in this neat and tidy fiction, it seemed, was more important than any reality — that they had died well meant that the expedition wasn’t a total loss, that there was still something that could be learned from it: about stoicism in the face of despair, heroism in the face of defeat. The truth was far less important than the lesson.

As for the doomed Flight 901, investigations would later suggest that the pilot and copilot of Flight 901 were not entirely in command. The original accident report cited pilot error as the cause of the crash, blaming the pilot’s decision to descend below the customary minimum altitude and his willingness to continue at that altitude after it became clear that the crew wasn’t entirely sure of their position. But a subsequent inquiry by Justice Peter Mahon cleared the crew of blame, and instead blamed Air New Zealand for altering the flight plan without advising the crew. This second report also blamed the whiteout conditions, what Mahon termed “a malevolent trick of polar light.” Mahon also accused the airline of a conspiracy to whitewash the inquiry; he charged it concealed evidence and lied to investigators.

This conspiracy accusation was subsequently dismissed by New Zealand’s Privy Council, but it still seems fair to say that the pilot and copilot of Flight 901 were not entirely in charge of what happened that day, constrained, as they were, by faulty information, flight plans, data and computers, to say nothing of the weather — all of which conspired to prevent them from fully understanding what was happening as they flew into the Antarctic wilderness. Most importantly, the inquiry failed to ascertain how the crew and passengers of Flight 901 died; it attempted to provide a narrative, one that could perhaps lead to some kind of closure — instead what it found were contradictions, lies, and ambiguity.

***

In those early months of the pandemic one of the few things I learned was how a single life can split into a series of paths simultaneously. There were times I felt absolutely in control, and times like I was swimming through an endless chaos. I remained in my tiny cabin of an apartment while I hurtled through space, both in and out of control at once. I learned that there is not a single narrative; that at some point in your life your story can splinter and divide and run in parallel tracks. Elements from one of your stories can affect all the others. At some point, you hope, these tracks will combine again. Often this can take years. Often it never happens at all.

The lateral thinking puzzle, on the other hand, only works if there is a single solution. The cabin is an airplane cabin, it is nothing else. If it is this then the solution is evident. If it is not, then the question — how did these men die? — becomes more urgent. Bear attack? Starvation? Cabin fever? We don’t know, cannot know.

As we sped into the unknown in those early days, all we wanted to know was who was spared, and for how long? Who died and how did they die? We knew there was a disease but we didn’t understand how it worked. We knew there were precautions that could keep you safe but we didn’t know which ones worked and why some people who followed them still got sick. Lives were wasted and lost less because of the disease itself and more because of a fealty to a broken set of ideas, a belief in a certain way the world worked that could not be altered. That the economy should be our primary concern, that businesses should stay open at all costs. That it wasn’t the government’s job to intervene. That personal choice was more valid than collective action. That change was not required. And tens of thousands of people were carried along to their graves in service of these beliefs.

***

You come outside your Brooklyn apartment one morning in April 2020, and the entire street is roped off in police tape. Across the street from your front door, there is a woman’s body in the trash. How did she die?

April 2020 is when everything seemed to have crashed, when there was nothing but wreckage. Through the middle of March, I had watched warily at the unfolding news, still trying to cling to some measure of hope; by the end of March the reality had begun to set in and everything seemed strange and emptied. It began a period when I literally could not imagine life beyond the next two weeks — I couldn’t see ahead in my life, as though I had entered a fog that obscured the future entirely. By April, there was nothing but the monotony of days, the litany of body counts and infection rates, and whatever grim rituals could be done to ward off despair and hopelessness.

And then on a bright, spring Wednesday morning I came outside to find that a body had been discovered across the street: a woman who’d been wrapped in a black and white tarp and left in a pile of trash.

The cops were still on the street, and I approached the one wearing a mask, speaking loudly so he didn’t have to get close. When I asked him what happened, he replied, “They’re doing an investigation.” “Did someone die?” I asked him. “Honestly,” he replied, “the news knows more about it than I do. It’ll be on the news.” It seemed to be his job not to know anything, to studiously avoid knowing anything. “Can you tell me anything? Should I be worried?” I asked him. He repeated the line. “They just have to do an investigation.”

Behind my question was not merely idle curiosity; it was of utmost importance at the time to know how people were dying. Was this a homicide? Was I at risk for my safety? Did I need to change my patterns of behavior when I was outside — avoid certain street corners or neighborhoods or times of night? Was it a COVID death? Had the outbreak spread so far and wide that people were just simply giving up, dumping bodies willy-nilly? Was this body a harbinger of a complete breakdown in the city?

I walked a bit away, out of earshot from the first cop, and put the same question to another cop. “It’s just that it’s suspicious, is all,” he told me. “So they have to do an investigation.” There was, I’m sure, a low note of panic in my voice. “But what was it? Someone was murdered? Was it homicide?”

“It’s just suspicious,” is all he would say. Neither officer was willing to even state the basic fact that I already knew. Neither was willing to name the antecedent to that pronoun, “it.” The death itself. Neither would even cop to the basic fact that there was a body.

A few days later, I learned from the news that it had not been a homicide, nor had it been related to COVID-19. The woman was believed to have overdosed and the man she was with had panicked, dumping her body rather than calling the paramedics. This man was later charged with concealment of a corpse — a law passed in New York in 2015, referred to as “Amanda Lynn’s Law,” after Amanda Lynn Wienckowski, a 20-year-old woman who was found dead in the trash in Buffalo in 2009. (Wienckowski’s death had also been ruled an overdose, but a private autopsy paid for by the family concluded that she had been strangled, leaving unresolved the question of how she died.) After that, the story dropped out of the news.

Having the solution to the puzzle solved nothing for me. It was, on a brutal level of reality, the best case scenario for discovering a body in the trash: It wasn’t a homicide, and it wasn’t related to the ongoing pandemic (at least not explicitly so). The fact that it was neither meant that my personal safety wasn’t any more or less impacted by this gruesome discovery. And yet, very little changed for me. I wasn’t reassured. Knowing the cause of death changed nothing. Could she have been saved? Did he try to save her? Why was she there? Was it all a terrible accident? Did she want to die? Why did he panic? Why couldn’t he have tried harder?

How did she die?

***

My own life went on. I tried not to think about her, that body in the trash, that woman whose name was never revealed. But she remains there, carried with me, nameless but insisting. I still pass the spot where her body was found several times a day. There is no memorial there, nothing to commemorate what happened; you’d have to have been there at the time to know it happened at all.

There is no memorial there, nothing to commemorate what happened; you’d have to have been there at the time to know it happened at all.

My street is filled with ghosts. There are memorials for others up and down the block: piles of candles and fading flowers, graffitied “RIPs” on the sides of buildings, laminated sheets of paper with smiling faces above dates tacked to trees. So many ways to be confronted with the same questions: Who was saved, and who was doomed — and how did they die?

For the families, and sometimes the police, there is nothing academic about these questions — they need to be answered, one way or another. But what about for the rest of us — the bystanders, who know a death has happened but aren’t involved directly? We who are too far removed personally to ever know the story, but also too close in physical proximity to ever forget that something has happened?

To live in a city like New York during a catastrophe is to be reminded a hundred times that you will never know the answer to these riddles, that the work of living through such times is to carry these unanswered questions with you, to never dismiss them. Sometimes the work we do for the dead involves fighting for justice. Sometimes it involves remembrances and testimonials and obituaries. Sometimes it involves asking questions that you cannot answer. Our obligation to the proximate dead is both very little and more than we can possibly hope to achieve; we ask the questions knowing there are no permanent or stable answers, only the questions themselves and the endless attempts to answer them.

***

The term “lateral thinking” was first coined by Edward de Bono in 1967, where he argued that the key was the switch from familiar patterns of thinking to different and unexpected perspectives, allowing for new insight. Rather than using critical faculties, reasoning out the true value of statements and attempting to understand and correct errors, lateral thinking is designed to radically break one out of established patterns and broaden one’s tools for problem solving.

De Bono published multiple books on his concept. He made a name and a career for himself, but he could never quite articulate how the process worked. He offered inspiring examples from the world of business and culture but hesitated to provide a roadmap for how the reader could imitate such successes. “No textbook could be compiled to teach lateral thinking,” he wrote in 1970’s Lateral Thinking: A Textbook in Creativity. As with other self-help gurus like Malcolm Gladwell, de Bono mainly offered a satisfying narrative built around sudden eureka moments that ignored the way solutions are usually found: communal problem-solving, trial and error, and dogged work. Less a significant contribution to cognition and more likely a pseudoscience that appealed to the CEOs who hired him to give presentations at their Fortune 500 companies, lateral thinking is a buzzword and a magic trick, obfuscating the stubborn work of thought behind ersatz epiphanies.

Lateral thinking presents itself as finding a novel solution — you reframe your perspective and you see it, there it is: The proper way to go. But sometimes there is no proper way to go, there is no trick of perspective that makes everything clear. I imagined, in those early days — and in the many, many days since, that if I spent enough time looking at what had happened to my life, if I turned around the question in my mind long enough, the answer would come clear and a simple solution would present itself. But I have never found this to be the case.

But sometimes there is no proper way to go, there is no trick of perspective that makes everything clear.

When I teach beginning students how to write a personal essay, I usually tell them there is a standard structure they can follow. There is a past self, the one who experiences the events in question, and a current self, the one writing about these experiences afterward. The essay is a dialogue, I tell them, and it is built around the difference between these two selves. The current self has learned something, understands something, and is communicating that takeaway to the reader.

The essay tries to answer the question: How did you live? You went through something, you were changed in some way, you came out the other side. How did you do it? What did you learn? The perspective, the reframing has happened, and now the writer sees clearly. What was ambiguous or uncertain is now resolved.

It’s a neat structure and makes for a satisfying read, but most of the time it’s a trick. You write a triumphant essay about getting over an ex and you’re still thinking about them months later. You write about meeting the love of your life and by the time the essay is published you’ve broken it off with them. You write an essay about what you’ve learned about yourself and you’re the same enigma the next day.

I’ve always distrusted the form of the personal essay because I recognize the lie here, recognize how easy it is to put together a satisfying narrative conclusion about an incident in my life, one that delivers on a certain promise made to the reader — a satisfaction entirely built on smoke. These neat, pat resolutions at best can only describe one facet of one’s life, at one particular moment. Meanwhile the rest of you — these parallel lives — remain messy, untidy, ambiguous, complicated.

You write an essay about what you’ve learned about yourself and you’re the same enigma the next day.

Enough time has passed since those early days of 2020 — and I’ve spent more than enough time thinking and puzzling on them — that by now I assume I should know something, I should be able to offer a takeaway of some kind. What those days meant to me. What I see now that I couldn’t see then. How I was changed. How I was saved. How I lived.

But none of this is true. All that I find I can do is keep adding new layers to the same question, one on top of each other. The only thing that feels true about myself is the series of questions I’m constantly asking myself, that never get answered fully but get asked again and again in an ever-evolving light. How did they die? How did I live?

***

The mountain reveals itself and the plane crashes. The ship reaches its destination and the passenger disembarks. The hermit, enmeshed in solitude for long enough, has an epiphany. The inquiry is finished, the cause of death announced. The pandemic winds down. The essay reaches its conclusion.

You think that something has ended here, but it’s just a trick of perspective.

***

Colin Dickey is the author of four books of nonfiction, including Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, and The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo